High-Ceiling Thinking

March 9, 2008


John 11:38-45

(38) Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.

(39) Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days."

(40) Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?"

(41) So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me.

(42) I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me."

(43) When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out."

(44) The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

(45) Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him,


A university professor named Joan Meyers-Levy studies the effect of ceilings on mental processes. She teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. While awaiting a flight at an airport, she observed the high ceilings of the terminal and got to thinking about how she would soon be in a very low ceiling environment, on an airplane. That started her wondering whether ceiling heights could have any effect on how we think.

At the university, she conducted a series of tests in which she had students perform various tasks on a laptop computer — some in a room with a 10-foot ceiling and some in a room identical in every way except that the ceiling was two feet lower.

What she discovered was that students in the higher-ceiling room consistently did well on tasks where they had to envision relationships between things, while students in the lower-ceiling room performed better on detail work. The professor explains the results this way:

With the higher ceiling heights, what seems to happen is that people subconsciously get a sense of freedom from the spaciousness of the room. And in lower ceilings, we are activating thoughts related to a sense of confinement, or some kind of limitation. And these thoughts shape the kind of processing we do.” [Gomes, Lee. “Ceiling height vs. performance: Sometimes it can make a difference.” The Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2007, B9]

In terms of Meyers-Levy’s field of specialty, which is business management, the study suggests that it could be helpful to put people in workspaces with different ceiling heights depending on the type of job they have. People who need to focus on detail, like computer programmers, accountants, and data-entry personnel, should be assigned to the lower-ceiling work areas, while those who do goal-setting, plan strategies, or come up with innovative concepts should get higher-ceiling spaces.

What does this have to do with John 11? Well, for one thing, the tomb of Lazarus was certainly a low-ceiling environment that imparted a sense of confinement. Verse 38 describes the tomb as a cave, with a stone “lying against it” (that is, sealing the entrance). Ancient burial chambers were often repositories for several bodies. The bodies were laid on shelves hacked out of the walls, one above the other. This means that each body was in a space with almost no head room. It was definitely a low-ceiling environment, but then when you are dead I guess that does not matter very much.

Death itself is the ultimate “low-ceiling” problem. Death is the final confinement, it is the end, at least for this physical body..

Tombs are okay dwellings for the dead, but if you are alive, they are no place to linger. That is why, in the gospel account, Jesus called for Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Jesus was enabling Lazarus to rejoin the living, so he called Lazarus to come out of his low-ceiling abode and stand under the high ceiling of God’s sky.

In the gospel of John, Lazarus is fourth in a line of crucial characters. They are Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and Lazarus. Through these four characters, Jesus reveals something of himself to us. As Jesus meets and interacts with each of these characters, we learn something about Jesus, which is John’s purpose, to teach us something about the one who was the Christ, the Messiah.

With the “raising of Lazarus” Jesus brings his message and his miracles to the boundary of human existence, to the border between death and life. In the first chapter of this gospel, John tells us that the Logos, whom he identifies with Christ, was with God in the beginning and was God, who created all that exists. Now Jesus, by both word and deed, emphasizes his life giving power again. In v25 Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And in v44 we read, “The dead man came out.” The challenge to us if found in v40, Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).

The story of Lazarus in John 11 covers five distinct scenes: the report of Lazarus’ illness (vv. 1-5); the plan to go to Judea (vv. 6-16); the meeting with Martha (vv. 17-27); the meeting with Mary and the Jews (vv. 28-37); the miracle at the tomb (vv. 38-44); with a final summary statement of the sign’s effect on the onlookers (v. 45).

Jesus’ miracles are signs that show us who Jesus was. This particular miracle, the raising of Lazarus, is the most spectacular sign in the NT, other than the resurrection itself.

Lazarus, Martha, and Mary each play distinctive roles in the narrative. John emphasizes that Jesus loved them all, but it is Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who takes center stage. Upon hearing that Jesus has come near to Bethany, she goes out to meet him and expresses her absolute faith in his power. Though she initially misunderstands Jesus’ promise about raising Lazarus, she responds with a solid confession after his clarification: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Perhaps this ought to be called “Martha’s confession.” It is a close parallel to “Peter’s confession” in Matthew 16:16, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as incarnate God, and Peter’s faith is then confirmed by the exaltation of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Even so, in John 11, Martha states her faith in Jesus and her faith is confirmed by the raising of her brother. Notice, in both cases, Peter and Martha were not convinced by the miracle. They already believed. The miracle was a sign that confirmed their belief.

Now as we approach Easter, we see the raising of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection, and it is that. In the raising of Lazarus, we have a hint of the resurrection of Jesus. But the two events are not the same. In the gospels, Jesus raised three people from the dead (Jairus’ daughter, Mark 5:21-43, the widow’s son at Nain, Luke 7:11-17, and Lazarus). But the gospels all emphasize that these three raisings from the dead are not the same as the resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus, for example, when he was raised, was still just a human being with ordinary human limitations, including the fact that he would die again. On the contrary, the resurrected Jesus could enter into locked rooms without being noticed (John 20:19). But he was not an apparition either, since he could be touched by human hands (John 20:27) and digest earthly food (John 21:9-14). What John and the other gospel writers testify is that, by the resurrection of Jesus, God inaugurated a new form of existence, one which does not fit the categories of previous understanding but transcends them. Though the raising of Lazarus is a sign pointing forward toward resurrection and eternal life it is not itself the resurrection promised by God in Christ. For that, we wait until Easter.

But if we are going to benefit from Easter, if we are even going to learn anything from the raising of Lazarus, we must begin in faith. It has always amazed me to think about how many people saw the miracles of Jesus, saw even the raising of Lazarus, saw even the resurrection of Jesus and were not convinced and did not believe. We read in v45, after lazarus came forth from the tomb that many believed, but we know that most did not. You have to ask the question: How could anyone not believe? How can two people look at Jesus and one says, “I see God in this man.” And the other says, “Well I don’t see much going on here. Lazarus was just passed out and when Jesus yelled he woke up. As for Jesus, when he was crucified, the disciples stole the body and made up all those stories about a resurrection.” The point is it is always possible to rationalize, to reason away, a miracle. That is why the church has always said that that miracles do not prove that Jesus was incarnate God. You cannot prove that you come to that by faith.

To return to Professor Joan Meyers-Levy, faith is high ceiling thinking. Sometimes, in this life we get stuck under a low ceiling. Life is hard, and we can get so bogged down in the day-to-day routine of making a living, paying the bills, mowing the lawn, dealing with the usual stuff that goes awry, trying to keep up with the demands others place upon us and so on, that we fall into what we might call low ceiling attitudes. “What you see is all there is.” That is a low-ceiling attitude. “Nothing ever really changes, and individuals don’t matter, and you might as well eat drink and be merry because when you are dead that is it.” All that is low-ceiling thinking.

Against all of that, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” That is high-ceiling thinking!

In the world of business, managers are always exhorting employees to come up with new ideas by “Thinking outside the box.” That is unless you work for Taco Bell and then they urge you to think “Outside the bun.”

Jesus clearly had a “Think outside of the grave” mentality. Most people think in terms of limits, and the ultimate limit is the grave. In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is very clearly saying to us that we need a new way of thinking. We need a faith way of thinking.

I asked a question earlier: Why do some people have faith in Jesu s and some do not? It is a question that raises a lot of issues. We have been talking about some of this in the Bible study on Wednesday night. Why would a loving God allow some people not to believe? Sometimes to questions like that, we have to say, I don’t known. Fortunately, we do not have to pass a test on theology to get into heaven. So maybe we need to restate our question in a more personal way. It is not why do some believe and some don’t. The only question you are really interested in is which group are you in? Do you believe? Do you have a faith attitude toward life. I have already pointed out that faith precedes miracles. You don’t see the miracles until you believe.

A child is born. I look at that little infant, with all that potential to grow and become, and I see a miracle of God.

There are over 6 billion people in the world now. That is 6 billion miracles. God is among us. God is working. I believe that all the events of this world are moving toward a final consummation in Jesus Christ. Now all that I have just said shows which side I am on. I am a believer. I believe in Jesus Christ as lord and savior, but notice that I did not say that I can prove any of that. I cannot prove that God is in charge of the world, but because I already believe, I see God’s hand everywhere. I cannot prove a miracle occurs, but because I already believe, I see miracles everywhere. Where are you on this? Do you believe? If you don’t believe, you cannot even begin to think about God. If the author of the gospel of John were standing here today, he would say, Have faith in Jesus Christ. If you don’t get that, you cannot even begin to get anything else.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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